WASHINGTON — As public support for the war in Afghanistan erodes, President Barack Obama soon may face two equally unattractive choices: increase U.S. troops levels to beat back a resilient enemy, or stick with the 68,000 already committed and risk the political fallout if that's not enough.
Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is completing an assessment of what he needs to win the fight there. That review, however, won't specifically address force levels, according to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But military officials privately believe McChrystal may ask for as many as 20,000 additional forces to get an increasingly difficult security situation in Afghanistan under control. And one leading Republican is already saying McChrystal will be pressured to ask for fewer troops than he requires.
"I think there are great pressures on General McChrystal to reduce those estimates," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in an interview broadcast Sunday. "I don't think it's necessarily from the president. I think it's from the people around him and others that I think don't want to see a significant increase in our troops' presence there."
Mullen on Sunday described the situation in Afghanistan as "serious and deteriorating," but refused to say whether additional forces would be needed.
"Afghanistan is very vulnerable in terms of (the) Taliban and extremists taking over again, and I don't think that threat's going to go away," he said.
Mullen also expressed concern about diminishing support among a war-weary American public as the U.S. and NATO enter their ninth year of combat and reconstruction operations.
In joint TV interviews, Mullen and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said last week's presidential election in Afghanistan was historic, given the threats of intimidation voters faced as they headed to polling stations. It could be several weeks, however, before it's known whether incumbent Hamid Karzai or one of his challengers won.
"We're not sure exactly what the level of voter turnout was," said Eikenberry, a retired three-star Army general. "Taliban intimidation, especially in southern Afghanistan, certainly limited those numbers."
Charges of fraud in the election are extensive enough to possibly sway the final result, and the number of allegations is likely to grow, according to the commission investigating the complaints.
The independent Electoral Complaints Commission has received 225 complaints since the start of Thursday's vote, including 35 allegations that are "material to the election results," said Grant Kippen, the head of the U.N.-backed body.
President Obama's strategy for defeating the Taliban and al-Qaida is a work in progress as more U.S. troops are sent there, Mullen said.
Three years ago, the U.S. had about 20,000 forces in the country. Today, it has triple that, on the way to 68,000 by year's end when all the extra 17,000 troops that Obama announced in March are to be in place. An additional 4,000 troops are arriving to help train Afghan forces. More civilian workers are going as well to help rebuild Afghanistan's economy and government.
Mullen said the security situation in Afghanistan needs to be reversed in the next 12 month to 18 months.
"I think it is serious and it is deteriorating, and I've said that over the last couple of years, that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated," he said.
Just over 50 percent of respondents to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this past week said the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.
Mullen, a Vietnam veteran, said he's aware that public support for the war is critical. "Certainly the numbers are of concern," he said. But, he added, "this is the war we're in."
"I recognize that we've been there over eight years," he said. "But this is the first time we've really resourced a strategy on both the civilian and military sides. So in certain ways, we're starting anew."
"We're just getting the pieces in place from the president's new strategy on the ground now," he said. "I don't see this as a mission of endless drift. I think we know what to do."
McChrystal's orders from Mullen and Defense Secretary Robert Gates was "to go out, assess where you are, and then tell us what you need," Mullen said. "And we'll get to that point. And I want to, I guess, assure you or reassure you that he hasn't asked for any additional troops up until this point in time."
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said McChrystal should say exactly how many troops he needs, let the Congress debate it and Obama would make the ultimate decision.
McChrystal and other military leaders in Afghanistan should use the same aggressive "clear and hold" approach that Gen. David Petraeus used successfully in Iraq, McCain added. That will create a secure environment for people so that economic and political progress can be made, he said.
On the question of what it will take to turn the tide in Afghanistan, McCain echoed Mullen's projection: "I think within a year to 18 months you could start to see progress."
McCain acknowledged that public opinion on Afghanistan is slipping. But he said that opinion could be reversed.
"I think you need to see a reversal of these very alarming and disturbing trends on attacks, casualties, areas of the country that the Taliban has increased control of."
Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Obama's leadership on Afghanistan is key to bolstering public support.
"He really can't just leave this to the Congress, to General McChrystal, and say, 'Folks, sort of, discuss this,' after the report comes in," Lugar said.
Mullen and Eikenberry appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and CNN's "State of the Union." Lugar was on CNN. McCain's interview Friday with ABC's "This Week" was aired Sunday.
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